32 Short Films About Glenn Gould or The Red Violin?

Which is a better film about classical music: 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, or The Red Violin?  I watch both repeatedly, and they both feature actor Colm Feore: as Glenn Gould in the former, and as the auctioneer in the latter.  They’re both a series of related vignettes.  But if I could only have one, which would it be?

reasons to like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould
This movie has the most compelling character, in the weird and eccentric pianistic genius.  And that’s actually saying a lot considering the fantastic characters in The Red Violin — the violin maker, the French violin teacher, the British sex-addict Romantic virtuoso, the Chinese shopkeeper during the Cultural Revolution.  But the Gould character is even better than all of those, tapping into a cult following that can be equalled amongst classical performers by very few others — Jacqueline Dupré, for example.  I also really like the fragmentary variety in the Gould movie.  Lots and lots of little vignettes that last only a few minutes each… it gave the filmmakers a venue to explore their imaginations, far and wide.

reasons to like The Red Violin
It looks great.  The cinematography is gorgeous, and the costume drama vignettes are all excellent recreations of Old World settings, and of mid-20th century China.  You get a roll call of brilliantly written historical characters, all of which are created according to an intelligent and informed interpretation of the time and place each of them would have lived.  Then there’s John Corigliano’s score, which is well done even if some think he sold out in moving to this sort of mainstream writing, from the edgier Modernist style he started out with.

reasons not to like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould
The Glenn Gould cult issue — which, yes, I also listed as a reason to like this film.  You either buy into the mystique of the man or you don’t, and I don’t.  Please don’t misunderstand, I have tremendous respect for him as a musician and I listen to album after album of his.  But I think he acted weird because he was weird, simple as that; not because he was such a great genius that he couldn’t be bothered to conform to the ways of us mere mortals.  If he’d been a schoolteacher instead we’d have made sure our kids didn’t enroll in his courses, and don’t forget that Vladimir Horowitz was every bit as much a towering giant of piano technique and idiomatic interpretive brilliance, without all the neurotic nonsense.

reasons not to like The Red Violin
There’s two obvious flaws: it’s easy to guess the reason why the violin is red right, and Samuel L. Jackson gives a pretty bad performance.  So what’s supposed to be the shocking revelation at the end you saw coming a mile away, and you feel embarrassed watching an actor who’s created such great characters in his other films fumble his way through material he has no idea what to do with.

and the award goes to…
The Red Violin.  There’s no bigger fan than me of historical drama done this well, and I love the earthy realism with which classical music all through history is depicted.  It’s always been a matter of craftsmanship and has had far more to do with the hard work and skill one associates with carpenters than with all the pretentious, Ivory Tower, high society fluff that surrounds it today… which, for that matter, is also depicted in the different sections of Jackson’s vignette.

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